Reading the Season: Surprised by Joy

If Shakespeare and Hamlet could ever meet, it must be Shakespeare’s doing. Shakespeare could, in principle, make himself appear as Author within the play, and write a dialogue between Hamlet and himself. The ‘Shakespeare’ within the play would of course be at once Shakespeare and one of Shakespeare’s creatures. It would bear some analogy to Incarnation. — C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy (p. 227)

What an apt analogy for Christmas. surprised_by_joy_the_shape_of_my_early_life_frontcover_large_1thqlUR3XQVIcV2 Chronicle of Joy Surprised by Joy is C. S. Lewis’s (1898-1963) autobiographical account of his experience with Joy in his younger days, that elusive something of which he had a hard time grasping. Subtitled The Shape of my Early Life, it is an honest chronicle of an intellectual journey. As a young teenager going to the junior school of Wyvern, Lewis had shed the veneer of Christianity from home and declared himself an atheist. But his quest for Joy remained. It was to him an ‘inconsolable longing’ for ‘the real Desirable’. As a child, a form of Joy came to him through solitary reading, writing and drawing. In his youth, Joy channelled through Wagner’s Ring Cycle and Norse mythology, or Northernness. As he grew, he began to realize that pleasure did not equate with Joy, neither physical nor aesthetic, neither Nature nor Wagnerian music, neither books nor poetry, nor the intellectual gratification from reading, nor the excitement of Northernness.

You might as well offer a mutton chop to a man who is dying of thirst as offer sexual pleasure to the desire I am speaking of. .. Joy is not a substitue for sex; sex is very often a substitute for Joy. I sometimes wonder whether all pleasures are not substitutes for Joy. (p. 170)

Reading and Studying Surprised by Joy is Lewis’s chronicle of his encounters with books and countless authors. As a young boy he was first taught Latin by his mother, who sadly died of illness when he was only nine years old. He went through all forms of education, home, public, boarding school, and the most gratifying to him was after his father pulled him out of Wyvern and directed him to a private teacher in preparation for Oxford. While his father was uncertain about the move, Lewis secretly relished the idea and thrived in the experience. His teacher was Mr. Kirkpatrick, or ‘Bookman’. He was an atheist, a rationalist, a logician. He had acutely sharpened Lewis’s critical thinking with logic and Dialectics, and well prepared him to enter Oxford. He assigned to Lewis readings from classical literature: Homer, Demosthenes, Cicero, Lucretius, Catullus, Tacitus, Herodotus, Virgil, Euripides, Sophocles, and Aeschylus. On his own, Lewis immersed in Norse myths and the Wagner’s Ring Cycle. His reading expanded to Goethe and Voltaire. It was only later upon a friend Arthur’s influence that he began to devour literature in the English language. “I read … all the best Waverleys, all the Brontes, and all the Jane Austens.” There were of course others, Donne, Milton, Spenser, Malory, Thomas Browne, George Herbert, the Romantics, Yeats, William Morris, G. K. Chesterton, and George MacDonald.

I was by now a sufficiently experienced reader to distinguish liking from agreement. I did not need to accept what Chesterton said in order to enjoy it. (P. 190)

Yet he could not help but began to revise some of his world views. Yeats, Maeterlinck, and ultimately, George MacDonald informed him of alternative glimpses other than the material world. Unde hoc mihi I admit I had to look this Latin phrase up. And this I found: Unde hoc mihi … translated as “And whence is this to me” (KJV), or “And why is this granted to me” (ESV) A phrase that moved me so. As I was reading, two-third into his autobiography these words leapt out:

Unde hoc mihi? In the depth of my disgraces, in the then invincible ignorance of my intellect, all this was given me without asking, even without consent. (p. 181)

Lewis describes the epiphany, utterly inexplicable, the moment which came to him when all things seemed so clear, and the presence of something not mythical or magical which he had craved in his mind, but ‘Holiness’. It was then that his Atheism was transformed into Theism (In a moment of divine enlightenment not unlike Levin’s conversion at the end of Anna Karenina.) This humble exclamation unde hoc mihi is used by Lewis as he alludes to Luke 1:43 when Mary, pregnant with the Christ Child, went to see her cousin Elizabeth, who also by miraculous means in her barren state, pregnant with John, the forerunner before Christ. Upon hearing Mary’s salutation to her, Elizabeth felt the babe leap in her womb, and she exclaimed: “And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” Why, a learned scholar, specialist of the Classics, logical thinker skilled in Dialectics, claimed no credits of his own in this enlightenment. But it is only the beginning, he had not met the Person yet. Further, he realized that whatever that had given him Joy before, like Nature,

that those mountains and gardens had never been what I wanted but only symbols which professed themselves to be no more, and that every effort to treat them as the real Desirable soon honestly proved itself to be a failure. (p. 204)

As he began to teach at Oxford, Lewis was surprised to find two fellow professors he respected were, alas, Christians. One of them was J. R. R. Tolkien. But Lewis was an unlikely candidate for Christianity, with his ‘deep-seated hatred of authority, monstrous individualism, lawlessness’ and his abhorrence of a ‘transcendental Interferer’ (p. 172). Yet that unquenchable longing for Joy was ever present. Friendship with Tolkien began to break down some long held biases. He admitted that “I was by now too experienced in literary criticism to regard the Gospels as myths… To accept the Incarnation was a further step… It brings God nearer, or near in a new way.” It was another year before Lewis finally “gave in and admitted that God was God… Perhaps the most reluctant convert in all England.” Ironically, as he humbly exclaimed unde hoc mihi, ‘why is this granted to me’, he was submitting to ‘Divine humility’, the Incarnation. Hamlet finally met his Author. And what of Joy? I can’t give out too many spoilers, can I?


I read Surprised By Joy along with Bellezza. Do click here to read her thoughts on the book.

Surprised by Joy: The Shape of my Early Life by C. S. Lewis, Harcourt Publishing, Orlando, Florida, 1955, 238 pages. This is the edition I read with the image posted.


Reading the Season Posts in Previous Years:

2020: Jack by Marilynne Robinson

2019: ‘A Hidden Life’ by Terrence Malick: a film for the Season

2018: Madeleine L’Engle’s Poem The Irrational Season

2017: A Wrinkle In Time by Madeleine L’Engle

2016:  Silence by Shusaku Endo

2015: The Book of Ruth

2014: Lila by Marilynne Robinson

2013: Poetry by Madeleine L’Engle

2012: Surprised by Joy by C. S. Lewis

2011: Walking on Water by Madeleine L’Engle

2010: A Widening Light, Luci Shaw

2009: The Irrational Season by Madeleine L’Engle 

2008: The Bible and the New York Times by Fleming Rutledge

2008: A Grief Observed by C. S. Lewis


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If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Creator of Ripple Effects, bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

24 thoughts on “Reading the Season: Surprised by Joy”

  1. Arti, you cover what you’ve read so perfectly that it sometimes makes me wonder if we’ve read the same book. You point out exquisite details, such as the Latin phrase, which I tend to gloss over (much to my detriment). So glad that I read this with you, it added greatly to my Christmas spirit this month.


    1. Bellezza,

      This is an inspiring read although not what I’d expected. I tell you, reading it is a humbling experience. Thanks for sharing this with me. Have a great Christmas. I look forward to more reading together next year! 😉


  2. Wow — sounds like a fascinating and somewhat dense biography. I can see why it is a good read for the season. For me, Christmas is all about the joy — and while I’ve periodically been having a hard time finding my twinkle this month, I’ve still been able to find some joy. This, too, will pass, since the twinkle is rarely gone for long. But the joy — well somehow, that just is pretty solid. I don’t know much about Lewis, my experience with him being “Shadowlands” and the Narnia chronicles, but this post inspires me to want to know more.


    1. Jeanie,

      This is as you said a ‘dense’ read… all the classical lit. which I’d not read, all the allusions. But then, there are the very personal accounts, like boarding school exp. etc. very interesting. You may like to go through some of my past years’ Reading the Season posts. You may find them lighter and more enjoyable reads. Have a great Christmas!


  3. I read this long ago. And strangely enough, I was just telling my friend about Lewis’s story of finding ultimate Joy after being an atheist! We named our son for him, by the way: Peter Lewis.

    May you enjoy the merriest of Christmases, Arti. Thank you for your presence here, which is always warm even in winter.


    1. Ruth,

      Thanks so much for stopping by and glad to hear that you had been once been touched by C. S. Lewis too. What an inspiration that you’d even named your son after him! Have a wonderful Christmas and may you experience the Joy ever more in the days ahead!


    1. Stefanie,

      I’m sure you’ll find this one interesting esp. when he relays his English school experiences. I’m sure you’d like to find out his Booklists too. 😉


    2. Let’s say ‘Authorlists’. He mentions no less than two dozens of authors, mostly classics (Greek and Latin). Many of the books he names or alludes to I haven’t the slightest idea what they are. But I’m sure you can appreciate. And also, he owes a lot to Bookman, yes, his private teacher Mr. Kirkpatrick, who had prepared him to enter Oxford.


  4. What a beautiful, spiritual book. I’ve been meaning to read something by C. S. Lewis that was not Narnia-based, although my first port of call was going to be the book he wrote about grief. But I have a soft spot for revelations and epiphanies of all kinds. I think they are the real miracles of the spirit.


    1. litlove,

      I think you’ll really enjoy this book since you have the background of the literature he mentions and his very insightful observations of the then English school system (maybe even now in certain schools). It is an inspiration to read him… especially with his very rational and intellectual approach to his spiritual awakening.

      As for the other one you mentioned by Lewis, it’s A Grief Observed, one of my previous ‘Reading the Season’ posts. I picked it up after reading Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking in which she mentions in her darkest moments she read this book by C. S. Lewis. That’s what prompted me to pick it up after reading Didion. ‘Joy’ and ‘Grief’ are both honest, insightful accounts of his experience, well worth reading.

      Wishing you and yours a joyful Christmas! And all the best in the New Year!


      1. Oh, Arti! So much to say about this book…a delight to hear about it…I am intrigued and delighted at the same time…you always offer treasure.

        I wish you a brilliant Christmas, rich with meaning and moments…and just as an aside, know that I continue with Anna, I follow her story with a raised eyebrow and continue to be surpised by Tolstoy as I picture him working away on this manuscript. I have not seen the movie yet, but thank you for opening the doors to this expansive treasure.

        Hugs and happy holidays!!!!!!!!!
        more later, Oh


        1. oh,

          I’m sure you’ll be savoring Tolstoy this winter holidays, and, yes, Lewis’s moment of epiphany just reminds me of Levin… oops better not give out spoilers. Anyway, have a great Christmas with your family and friends, and all the best in the New Year! Don’t forget the films… Les Mis premiers on Christmas Day. What timing.


  5. I read Bellezza’s review first, and ended my comment by making reference to Shakespeare. What a surprise to come here and find Shakespeare at the top of your page.

    I was most caught here by something which reinforces a conclusion or two I came to while reading Bellezza’s review. The mention of “‘deep-seated hatred of authority, monstrous individualism, lawlessness’ and…abhorrence of a ‘transcendental Interferer’” is just so relevant to current societal views of the Church and the construction of perfectly ridiculous strawmen to criticize Christian faith. Lewis’ chronicle of his individual journey may have broader implications for our time. For that reason alone, I believe I’ll try to get it read, sooner rather than later.


    1. Linda,

      As I’ve said many times, I’m just amazed at the sync. in our timing and thinking. This is a rational and yet personal approach to his personal journey, a valuable piece of biographical account of a great mind. Also, while I’m here… re. the email, I’m still waiting for that special something. But as you say, Christmas is more than just one day. Yes, something to celebrate. 😉 Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!


  6. I haven’t read this one by Lewis and appreciate your highlighting so much that was meaningful to you. I knew of Lewis’s conversion in broad strokes, but might have to get my hands on a copy of Surprised by Joy. Thank you, and happy Christmas to you and your loved ones.


  7. Such a beautiful review. I’ve been intending to read “Mere Christianity” early in 2013 for a while, but “Surprised by Joy” was quite far down on my TBR. Now I’m very eager to read it.


    1. Lit~Lass,

      Welcome! I’m sure you’ll enjoy this one. I read Mere Christianity years ago, I still remember the casual and personal tone, yet still highly logical. Hope to hear from you again. Have a Merry Christmas!


    1. The Writing Waters Blog,

      Welcome! C.S.Lewis is a deep pool to reflect upon. A great thinker and versatile writer. Have you read his other books? Or seen that movie Shadowlands?


      1. No, I haven’t seen Shadowlands, though I did see the Narnia series. I’ve read The Great Divorce, Screwtape (and saw the traveling one man show), A Grief Observed, and The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. I see from the sidebar that you and I have several books in common we’ve read.


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